An Introduction to Working with Grunge Music

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Grunge music has grown so much since the early 90s both in the sonic quality of the music and the ways in which it gets recorded. In the earliest days of grunge, bands found their sound drowned in distortion and strived for the sound of unpolished, lo-fi sounding recordings. Today, the same aggression and raw performances are there, but the technology has changed the way we approach recording and mixing grunge.

Grunge music has always had a very specific sound and audience. It predates many other genres we discuss like metalcore and djent, but grunge mixers have found a way to take the modern practices of these genres and apply them to bands that are finding success with grunge music today.

Several notable artists from the peak of the grunge era continue making music today with a modern production approach, including groups like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains & Stone Temple Pilots. More and more often, we’re seeing these groups take influence from other genres, borrowing from hard rock and even psychedelic music to experiment with their sound. We’re also seeing bands like Title Fight & Citizen combine elements of grunge with post-hardcore elements for a new spin on the genre.

From a production standpoint – what exactly should you be doing to create the best mix possible for a grunge artist?

Recording Grunge Music

Recording a band live is an extremely rewarding experience when done right, but it takes a ton of work and prep to get perfect. Successful grunge producers like Steve Albini know that it’s all about the tracking session though. For those unfamiliar, Steve was the producer on Nirvana’s In Utero album – perhaps one of the most definitive records in the genre.

Albini’s approach to recording is almost all analog, which combined with his extensive experience in the studio, gives him a very organic sound. His focus during recording is to accentuate the elements of a band that make them sound unique and help the artists achieve their vision for a song.

Loud, powerful drums and buzzy guitars that are just as full of feedback and noise as they are notes are staples of the genre. It’s all about artfully taking that noise and “bad” sounds and making them sound musical.

Digital audio engineers recording grunge should take heed of these concepts, because even in the box, a great sounding song starts from a great sounding recording. Learn to capture not only the instruments, but also the space around them. There’s a reason “garage rock” brings to mind a certain sound and no amount of in the box processing is going to sound as natural as capturing that room for real as part of the recording session.

Grunge Vocal Production

Vocals are an essential part of the mix in grunge, and many producers opt for a largely double-tracked vocal approach thanks to the density and dissonance a loosely doubled vocal can add. Beyond the performance though, a grunge vocal should still be clear and present toward the front of your mix & compression can go a long way to help smooth out anything that’s too dynamic or inconsistent.

Check out this great video example of how Gain Reduction 2 can be used on a grunge vocal as a complete vocal production suite – from de-essing to low-end cleanup and everything in between:

As you can hear from the video, Gain Reduction 2 is so much more than just a compressor. It’s got everything you need to really dial in a vocal and it’s got just the right amount of aggression/saturation needed to help dial in a grunge vocal in a mix.

Become a Multi-Genre Master

While some concepts and mix decisions can be defined genre by genre, the large majority of what we do as mixers and engineers can be largely independent of genre. For example, the process to get the perfect guitar tone doesn’t have to be genre specific at all. While the gear might change, what your ear is listening for shouldn’t. The same goes for many other techniques in your DAW, which is why so many different genres use the same software for recording and mixing.

If you’re interested in learning the core competencies of any mixer or engineer, come check out all of the resources available to JST VIP members. We’ve got courses like Toneforge Bootcamp that teaches you to find any guitar tone and eBooks like Virtual Signal Chain Secrets that dives deep into how your in-the-box signal chain should flow from plugin to plugin for optimal results.

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